Will a Latina Labor Lawyer Replace a Tea Party Congressman in California?
Aguilar is something of a political prodigy. At 26, he became the youngest City Council member in Redlands history, and now, along with his duties as mayor, he runs a government-affairs consulting firm. He seems to be responding to the pressure from his left: although he was once identified by a local paper as a self-described moderate, his campaign literature now tags him as a progressive. In 2012, he told the editorial board of the San Bernardino Sun that he supported the Simpson-Bowles plan, which included deep benefit cuts to Social Security—but his first television commercial featured Aguilar reassuring his grandmothers that he would protect the program.
As the campaign becomes more contentious, the DCCC has subtly downplayed its support of Aguilar, who was the first candidate that the group recruited for this cycle and who featured prominently in its “Jumpstart” program last year. In March, when the DCCC released its list of the top races in 2014, it failed to mention Aguilar, instead simply naming the 31st District as a prime “red to blue” opportunity. But while it seeks to avoid highlighting what has become an intra-party battle, the DCCC is still fully behind Aguilar, coordinating with the campaign and fundraising on his behalf.
“This race is costing the Democrats a lot of money,” says Claremont McKenna College professor John Pitney Jr., who studies California politics. Pitney says that no Republican candidate has gained much traction, and so “it’s very possible that Aguilar and Reyes will go at each other again in November.”
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On a gusty spring evening, people slowly file into a candidates’ forum at the Sacred Heart Church, located between a roaring freeway and a mostly vacant shopping complex in the city of Rancho Cucamonga. The primary is just over a month away, and by the 7:30 pm start time, almost all of the folding chairs have been taken. Like the district, the crowd appears to be about half-Latino; Spanish translation is provided, and a local immigrant-rights group is co-sponsoring the event.
While the Democratic field may be crowded, there’s really no excuse to lose to the Republicans here. One GOP contender, Paul Chabot, doesn’t believe in climate change and thinks the proper response to the country’s immigration dilemma is to export Plan Colombia to Mexico. (The plan sends billions of dollars in military aid to Colombia, despite widespread human rights abuses.) Another Republican hopeful, Ryan Downing, argues against sending a “lady figure” to Congress because the GOP won’t listen to her. And the third contender is ex-lobbyist and Miller aide Lesli Gooch, who didn’t make the event and only bothered to register to vote in the district this spring.
The questions at the forum reflect the problems of the district: jobs, immigration, education, the environment. Along with Reyes and Aguilar, the other Democrat here tonight is former Representative Joe Baca, who lost an election for a neighboring district in 2012 to Gloria Negrete McLeod and recently referred to her as “some bimbo.” Baca often looks bored as he ticks off Democratic talking points, using much of his time to remind the audience that he spent fourteen years in office and that “seniority does count in Washington.”
Although Reyes and Aguilar have similar platforms, Reyes tends to paint a broader picture of the problems facing the country—and their solutions. Aguilar says that the “primary piece” to ending inequality is raising the minimum wage to $10.10; Reyes argues that a minimum wage hike is “the least we can do,” mentioning the need for pay equity and more fairly taxing corporations. She notes the need for reform on immigration, but also criticizes the ongoing deportations of people who haven’t committed a crime. “Separating families is not humane,” she tells the audience. “I don’t care how you paint it.”
The biggest difference, of course, is their backgrounds. Aguilar got involved in government affairs immediately after graduating from college and was tapped early by the Democratic Party. Reyes is a first-time candidate, an outsider in her late 50s with a powerful advocacy group behind her. “She spent her life doing something else,” Pitney says, “which is kind of what the framers had in mind when they invented the House of Representatives.”
Back at her campaign headquarters, a historic Victorian house that until recently was her law office, Reyes talks about her new phase as a political candidate. Before this, she labored in relative obscurity: visiting high schools to help Dreamers gather documents for DACA applications, volunteering on Mondays at Legal Aid, collecting postcards to pressure Miller into supporting immigration reform. Now, per the requirements of politics, her biography is front and center, plastered across mailings and websites. And while it might feel strange to have to recount for every new reporter the journey she has taken to get here, there is value, she says, in looking back.
“It has to do with the lives we lead,” Reyes says. “What did we do for the community without being paid? What did we do without having to write something about it?”
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